Interviews

Finding Center with Garth Milan

Whether you need the keys to living a healthy and active life, seek philosophies on photography in relation to self, or find yourself dangling off the side of a building to cure a hangover... Garth might be able to lend you his expertise.

I met Garth Milan at RedBud in the Autumn of 2018 during the quagmire that was the Motocross of Nations. It was an odd weekend for introductions admittedly, as my usual timidness fell completely to the wayside in lieu of my enthusiasm for the race. (I grew up at RedBud.)

Unfortunately, the goofiness that stemmed from my timidness was not replaced with charisma, so instead of being a quiet dork lurking the pits, I was an uncharacteristically loud one. Once I’d seen Garth maneuvering into the media tent, I immediately called out his name and played 20 questions with him. I asked him some ridiculous stuff I’m sure, the details of which I’ll spare because he’s going to have to read this before you do. I can safely assume Garth wouldn’t remember that moment anyway, because he’s kept busy by being one of the best photographers in our little sport.

Garth and I would meet again 3 years later at a hotel in Durango, Colorado, where instead of asking him 20 questions in the elevator, I asked him 50 over the phone.

Enough of my drivel… here’s Garth.

World of Echo: You’re pretty much SoCal through and through, right?

Garth Milan: Well, yes and no! I’m 45 now, but I think I moved here with my family when I was around 12 years old, give or take. I’ve spent a big chunk of my life here for sure, but I was actually born in New York and lived in a bunch of different states until we settled in California.

Come to think of it, we were all set to move out of California to Texas when I was in high school, but my brother and I ended up liking it here so much that we actually convinced my dad to quit his job and find another one that allowed him to stay out west. I’ve been a SoCal guy for a long time, but not forever.

You guys must’ve had one hell of an argument for your dad!

[laughs] Yeah, I suppose so! But at the same time, I think my parents were also sick of moving all across the country. We had lived in 5 or 6 different places in a span of 10 years before we settled in California, so I think they were just as tired of moving as my brother and I were. While it may have been a hard sell, I think they liked SoCal just as much as we did.

It didn’t hurt that we were at the epicenter of the motocross world either, of which my brother and I fell in love with.

Is it true your mother worked the GFI series at Perris Raceway back in the day?

Yes, she did! She used to work for Goat Breker at GFI for years and years. When it was all said and done, I think she worked for him close to 15 or 20 years. She worked at Perris predominantly, but she also helped at other tracks all across southern California. She used to work the Elsinore Grand Prix when they brought that back, and she really just did all sorts of stuff. She helped in every avenue of that series. You’d usually catch my mom at the front gate, but she had her hands in every part of the business at some point.

How did she embed herself in that scene so quickly?

Well, it basically stemmed from my brother and I becoming so passionate about racing, and her being a bored (yet sociable) person stuck at the track watching her boys. That’s how she ultimately became friends with Goat and his wife, which eventually led to them offering her a job. Even after I got out of racing and moved away for school, she continued to work for Goat until they got out of the motorcycle business altogether.

Did your dad ride as well back in the day?

No, not really. My brother and I actually convinced him to pick it up way later in life, but at that time he wasn’t as active as he is now. I mean, he rode back then, he even had a Hodaka to cruise trails on, but his primary concern was not getting injured so he could provide for our family. Once he reached retirement age though, he really kicked it up a notch and now he rides all the time! Even today at 77 years old, he’s got a YZ 250 for the track and a KLX 300 for the trails. Both he and my mom also follow the pro racing circuit religiously… they love it.

They don’t travel to the races anymore, but after every event they’ll almost certainly know more about what happened than I do.

It seems moto is heavily ingrained in the Milan lineage!

Absolutely. I forgot to mention that my brother recently got a job at Kawasaki selling motorcycles, so yeah! It’s safe to say that it’s in our blood. Once we moved to SoCal that was it, we’ve been hooked ever since.

As far as my personal relationship with riding, it’s something I go back and forth on all the time, where I’ll have bursts and droughts. I don’t really race anymore, but I’ll always ride.

Instead of becoming a pro motocross rider out of Perris, you took a sharp left into the world of photojournalism. You went to Cal State, right?

Cal State in Long Beach, I majored in photojournalism with a minor in psychology.

How did you take to higher education?

Well… it took me six years to get a four year. [laughs] But I worked on a daily newspaper (The Daily 49’er) while simultaneously attending class, which was especially time consuming for that era considering digital switch hadn’t happened yet. We were rolling our own black & white film, shooting it, and processing the negatives by the end of the day. All day, every day.

“We were spread pretty thin when I started working at the 49’er… it was 3 or 4 people meeting at a card table.”

We were spread pretty thin when I started working at the 49’er, too. Back in its heyday the photo department would have 30 to 40 kids ready to capture stories, and when I got there it was 3 or 4 people meeting a card table. That was it! That was the class! We got some valuable 1-on-1 instruction from the professor this way, but at the same time we were responsible for every aspect of producing the newspaper on a daily basis. It truly was a non-stop gig.

I enjoyed school, though. At that time I probably wouldn’t have said that, but I knew deep down that it was good for me. I had a lot of challenging professors and classes, but that instilled in me a foundation for my work ethic, which became the bedrock for my career. It wasn’t easy seeing my friends pass through twice as many classes as me, but those long days in the dark room paid dividends.

I actually found an old article you wrote for the 49’er. It covers an appearance by Snoop Dogg at VIP Records, on tour promoting The Eastsidaz.

No way! That is awesome. Is there a date on the article?

November 23, 1999.

Wow… crazy. I would’ve nearly been done with school at that point. I was actually working at Dirt Rider magazine by then, where I was the editor at large. That was the start of my career in the magazine world. Great find.

I think you ought to cut yourself some slack, Garth. If I have the timeline right, between Snoop Dogg photo ops and rigorous course work, you were shooting covers for Dirt Rider and the Canyon Lake Residential Directory while still in school!

Oh wow! Canyon Lake! That is old-school right there. That is my very first cover, ever. Canyon Lake Residential with wakeboarder Ricky Gonzales.

How did that come about?

The Friday Flyer, a local paper which published in Canyon Lake where I grew up, were asking for photo submissions for an upcoming cover. I went by the office with a handful of slides to submit, and they ended up picking that photo of Ricky. Simple as that, really.

I even got paid, too! I can’t remember how much, maybe a couple of bucks, but that was probably one of the first times I ever got paid for a photo. My mom has a good collection of that stuff, and I’m sure she has that cover somewhere in her archives.

This was all around 1998, 1999, right when you were finishing school?

Yep, that’s about when I got into photography in a professional capacity. By 2000, Donn and I had started TransWorld Motocross, so yeah. My work before that was through Dirt Rider and, believe it or not, a lot of wakeboard photography. Shooting with Ricky at Canyon Lake wasn’t exactly happenstance, because I lived there and was around that scene a lot at the time. I split my interests between wakeboarding and motocross. I loved them both and enjoyed being around those scenes.

I split my interests between wakeboarding and motocross, because I loved them both. That really what kicked off my career in action-sports photography, because I was just wired into those scenes at a young age and I had access to talented people within those worlds who allowed me to shoot photos of them. That was a big help for my photography, because it inspires you to shoot better when you’re shooting someone who is really good at something.

Is that how your position at Dirt Rider formulated? By being a photographer who had access to the athletes they wanted to publish?

No, not at all. My mom actually hooked up my position at Dirt Rider believe it or not, because she knew Ken Faught from back in the day working the GFI series and seeing him out shooting at the track. I wasn’t lying when I said she was sociable! She knew everyone, man.

Anyway, how it happened was, at some point when I was in school, she mentioned to Ken at the Elsinore Grand Prix that I was finishing up my photojournalism degree and that he should reach out if there ever was an opening at the mag. Coincidentally, Ken was a Cal State Long Beach alumnus, so we instantly had a connection right there, and that helped prop the door open even further. He was such a nice guy regardless, always willing to help out. He gave me a lot of writing assignments early on, along with photo.

I was also in charge of the ATV Buyer’s Guide around that same time in the late 90’s, which was a separate publication from Dirt Rider that allowed me to learn the ropes of juggling multiple projects at once. It taught me how to lay a magazine and conceptualize. Everything took off from there, thanks to Ken.

When you shifted to TransWorld with Maeda, you made mention before about distributing an “illegal” 16-page version of Issue 1 at the Glen Helen national. I’m curious as to what this 16-page version of the magazine was, and why it was illegal?

It was what we would call a “teaser issue”. Its purpose was to not only show consumers, but also to show advertisers what the magazine was going to look like conceptually. We did a small version of everything with columns, layouts and such, just miniature. One spread would showcase how a feature would look, the other would be a photo gallery, etc. It was just an introductory sort of thing to get people hyped about the magazine.

Now, the reason why it was illegal was because we weren’t directly involved with the race series, which was run by Davey Coombs. Even though we were friends with Davey, it was his magazine covered the races and it was his promtional group ran them, so the nationals were kind of his territory in those regards. Not that we’ve ever had any problems or beef with Davey, it was just that he and whoever else he was involved with at the time had to make a business decision and ultimately forbade us from advertising our new magazine at the races. Before we were explicitly told not to do it though, we had already handed them out to a number of people and placed them under multiple windshield wipers in the pits.

We just needed to build the hype, and I think we got enough of them out to properly do so. I certainly remember it ruffled some feathers at the time, but that’s just how it goes.

The real deal.

That’s the quintessential “ask for forgiveness, not for permission,” story.

Oh, totally. I can’t even remember if we honestly thought anyone would be upset about what our plan was, we just did it without a second thought. We stopped when they asked us to.

That little preview issue must be quite the collector’s item now…

[laughs] Yeah, I bet it would be! I’m almost certain my mom has one of those as well in her collection.

Not to detract from your career at TransWorld at large, but I was hoping to detail some specific eras in your life through pieces that you’ve conducted throughout your career, the first of which being your decades-long relationship with Travis Pastrana. You’ve been around him practically your entire career. I was curious if there’s any moments you can recall that showcase Travis’ vulnerability. A softer, more private side of his life.

It’s been a long time since this happend, but I can remember going to Travis’ house in Annapolis, Maryland, which was actually his parent’s house at that time, and he was still just a total kid. And I can remember him showing me his bedroom and it looked just like any other kid’s. Posters on the wall, toys and trinkets scattered throughout, etc. It was his own private zone, customized to his liking. It was really how any other kid would treat an intimate space like their room. To look back now though, while thinking about where he is today and all that he’s done, to have been able to see that side of Travis was special.

I was actually there to shoot for his interview in an early issue of TransWorld, which was one of his first major interviews if I recall correctly. That was one of my first big trips as well, flying all the way across the country to cover this kid for the mag. I can remember back then at TransWorld we used to do these up close and personal interviews, covering the aspects of rider’s lives beyond the track. I was there to specifically profile Travis as a person, and it was cool being around him at that time. He’s definitely of the most incredible people I’ve ever known, period.

This reminds me of a funny story. There was one quick moment if I recall, which I don’t think happened on that trip specifically, but came from another time I was around Travis. We were in a little crew together driving around and we crossed over a bridge. It was a quiet, unassuming moment, up until Travis demanded whoever was driving to, “STOP THE CAR!”

Travis flung the door open, ran across the bridge, and immediately flung himself over the edge into the river below.

Unprompted?

Oh yeah, just total spur of the moment type thing. It was easily 100 ft. to the water, or close to it. That’s just the kind of person he is though, a total maniac… but in a good way. The way his mind works is so unique.

Not quite as maniacal as his roof-to-roof Backflip Nac-Nac, though.

No, absolutely not. That was on a whole other level. I think that was one of the coolest things he’s ever done, honestly. To think back to how insane that was really blows me away.

The way the buildings were set up, there wasn’t an optimal path for him to get speed to clear the gap, so he had to approach the run-in at a 90-degree angle, hook a right, and then from there he was just completely pinned through takeoff. The chance he took in doing that makes me cringe just thinking about it. There’s so many variables involved: What if the bike cut out? Would his tires slip on the run up? Which way would the wind blow that day? So many different scenarios… I can’t believe they even let Travis do that.

This was during the MTV run of Nitro Circus.

Yes, and they scheduled to shoot it the morning after X Games, too. It was right after the contest, which Travis had pummeled himself in attempting that corkscrew 720 during Moto-X Best Trick.

I remember being a bit out of commission, myself. [laughs] As anyone who works during X Games knows, the days are excruciatingly long and exhausting, so I had celebrated the night before and wasn’t particularly motivated to start moving the following morning. If it was anyone else other than Travis, I probably wouldn’t have agreed to show up. Knowing what the trick was and who was doing it, I dragged myself out of bed.

“…my adrenaline started pumping [because] the angle I shot had me hanging off the side of the building…”

Once I got to the shoot, we were stuck on this rooftop with the Los Angeles sun just pounding on us nonstop. I wasn’t feeling all too well in my condition, but once Travis started taking his runs at the ramp, my adrenaline started pumping and the weariness wore off quick. It also helped that the angle I shot had me hanging off the side of the building, because I was trying to get my camera over the edge to show how far down the gap went. It was a difficult and nerve-wracking shot since there was no easy way to hang in that position, but there was only one chance to get it so I hung on.

Not the type of trick you could ask someone to run back for the photo

No, absolutely not. That was a frustrating aspect to the shoot, because when we scouted the area before he jumped, there were 3 or 4 different spots that I wanted to capture from. I didn’t have any remote equipment on me at the time, so I had to choose one, and ultimately I went on the roof and shot it as a sequence. Alternatively, I thought about shooting it from the ground, looking up at him as he crossed over.

There was some talk of him doing the jump multiple times, but once everyone rolled in and saw the setup, it was unanimously agreed that this was more intimidating than anyone had anticipated. After he did the backflip, that pretty much put a cap on it. He wasn’t going to jump again after that. I was happy that I picked the spot I did.

There are certain shots in my collection that are timeless in terms of what the people are doing, and I find this sequence to be a perfect example of that. Sure, other, more difficult tricks have been invented since then and bigger gaps have been conquered, but nothing can recreate the energy from that day.

From one death-defying stunt to another, you shot Felix Baumgartner skydive from space! You were prominently involved in this as a photographer, a project which I have to assume must’ve been pretty heavy?

That whole project was exceptionally heavy, absolutely. We’re talking years and years in testing and development just to get it off the ground, both figuratively and literally. I saw Felix and the entire team of scientists, aerospace technicians, and engineers go through unending trials and tribulations leading up to the jump, and for a while it looked like the project wasn’t even going to happen at all. It was shelved for 2 years altogether, but they got it going again after that hiatus.

To reiterate though, it was gnarly. Even the final week leading up to the jump was madness, considering all the elements that needed to align in order for him to attempt it. There were numerous moments during that week where it looked like the jump just wasn’t going to be possible but in the end, as we all know, they pulled it off. The suspense, anxiety, and uncertainness just never let up though, throughout the entire process and through the actual jump itself. Once Felix started to fall into that uncontrollable spin, that might’ve been the heaviest moment of it all, because nobody knew if he was going to make it out alive.

“Once Felix started to fall into that uncontrollable spin… nobody knew if he was going to make it out alive.”

For myself, having been present throughout the process of getting Felix to that point, and to think that something had gone wrong at such a critical juncture, that was a lot to think about. For Felix to pull out of that and complete the jump, man… it was an amazing moment. A true showcase of Felix’s athletic prowess.

It was a long and winding road. I remember when the pod he eventually jumped out of was nothing more than a 2′ x 4′ dummy replica, where the team were constructing ideas that were purely hypothetical. I spent years with not only Felix, but the entire team behind him coordinating and constructing that stunt: Scientists from NASA, aerospace technicians, engineers, data recorders, high altitude image specialists, helicopter pilots… the list goes on. My point being, for the amount of time I spent with that team, we really formed a bond between us and became this big family. It was the longest project I’ve ever been a part of and that made the payoff even sweeter when Felix touched down. It was an emotional day; tears were shed.

It’s not often you’re working side by side with aerospace engineers in your field.

Some of the guys I dealt with during the course of that shoot had built the same stuff you see on the space shuttle. The head of the Stratos program even designed the Stealth Bomber for the Air Force! These were top, top people, absolutely, but at the end of the day they were all just nice and down to earth. The type of people you could unwind and have a beer with at the end of the day.

I love that part of my job, being behind the scenes and meeting interesting people in new places. It keeps it fun.

Not unlike the athletes you’ve captured, you’re no stranger to taking hits out in the field yourself: Torpedoed by motorcycles, lacerated fingers, staph infection… Have you ever thought about keeping a rabbit’s foot or 4-leaf clover in your pocket?

[laughs] Right? I used to think I might have bad luck, but I think it’s more of a law of averages at this point. I put myself in so many precarious, dumb, and crazy situations that something is bound to go wrong at some point. I try to be more conscious of it as I get older.

At this point, I’ll trust an athlete on a private shoot with my life and I’ll get into just about any controlled situation to get a shot. It’s the live event stuff that has me more weary these days, because you never know what can happen. I second guess myself a lot now when it comes to where I’m shooting, which way I’m facing, things like that. With all that’s already happened, I put greater consideration into what could happen in the present moment.

I’ve been taken out and beaten up. If I didn’t take those risks though, I wouldn’t be able to get the shots that I’m known for.”

Like you mentioned, I’ve been hit. I’ve been taken out and beaten up. If I didn’t take those risks though, I wouldn’t be able to get the shots that I’m known for. I’ll lay it on the line to get an angle someone normally wouldn’t be able to get, and I’d even go so far as to consider that one of my staples. These days I don’t necessarily change my philosophy towards photography, I just have to approach it with a conscious edge.

Playing it safe is different for everybody…

Would you attribute your longevity to veganism and Bikram (yoga)?

Not particularly, but I think it definitely helps. I will say that being a vegan is more of a burden than anything when I’m on the road, but I truly believe it is a healthy diet and I happily practice it. I would say veganism is more of a life choice than anything, however I wouldn’t push veganism on anyone, I just believe it works well for me. It keeps me centered.

Yoga has played a pivotal, life-changing role in my routine as well. Being a taller guy, I was developing some serious back issues from the daily abuse I’d put my body through at work, to the point where I was seriously considering giving up photography completely. Once I got into stretching regularly and learning how to work past those problems, things got better. I don’t really have any back problems to speak of now.

I’d say flexibility and well-being are critically overlooked by many, especially in creative circles. As photographers and videographers, those are two fields that are demanding on your spine, and to do either one professionally for 20 years takes a toll on your health. Keeping your hips open and flexible is paramount! Take it from a guy who endured 15 years of back pain to figure it out.

Yoga is something I’d recommend anyone try. Even committing to simple stretches a few times a week can do wonders for your body and mind.

Have you considered meditation or other spiritually-inclined remedies to take care of your body?

Oh yeah! I’m super into meditating. I’m actually meditating a ton right now with my schedule being as crazy as it is. I frequently fly between the west coast and the east coast, so my internal clock has been put through the wringer lately and I find myself waking up at odd hours in the night. Instead of going back to sleep, I use that time to meditate, which can range from a couple of minutes to a few hours. Even if I’ve only slept for 4 or 5 hours that night, I’ll wake up feeling great. I learned a lot about that through yoga, actually.

Diet, stretching, and meditation are lifestyles that I wouldn’t push on anyone, but I believe they can be key in staying healthy and active. If you like to jog or ride bikes, that works too. Just keep moving.

Do you still skate? Not good for the body, but good for the mind.

I’ll always call myself a skater until the day I die, but if I’m being honest I haven’t actually skated in quite some time. It’s been a few years since I had a spot close enough to warrant going out on a regular basis, because my favorite things to skate are pools and transition.

When I lived in the Orange County area, there were tons of skateparks to choose from. Where I love now, the nearest skatepark is an hour from my house, and the ones that are closer are not even worth going to. Coupled with my work schedule, it’s difficult to carve out the time needed to go somewhere decent to skate. That’s not to say I won’t pick it up again, certainly one day, I just need to find the time. I still have my board and pads.

Another influence that seems prevalent in your personality is your love for punk music, specifically Keith Warren and The Adicts. I was wondering how music has influenced you, if at all.

Big time punk fan, absolutely. Always have been, always will be. That’s a huge part of my life and who I am. I’ll always love it. I’ve been into punk since my early teens. It’s influenced how I think and what I think is cool.

A big part of it for me was live music, the concerts. I was into the scene, the energy, and everyone that made it what it is today. Going to shows was such an awesome experience, one that I’m missing it right now with the way things have been lately… but hopefully it’ll come back into full swing soon and I’ll start catching shows.

Kind of a cheap question, but what’s the best show you’ve ever been to?

Oh, that’s an easy one! I went with my girlfriend at the time to see The Adicts, and now she’s my wife! It was our first date; New Years Eve 2004, at the Knitting Factory in Hollywood. It was a great show in general, but that was also the catalyst for our entire relationship and marriage. We were just friends that night! It was all-time.

I’ve seen a million shows, and I hope to see a million more.

During a 2013 interview with Kyle Cowling, you spoke philosophically about photography and what it means to be a professional in that field. In an excerpt I pulled, you said, “You have to love your craft. You can’t do it to impress people. You can’t do it because you want to make money off it. You can’t do it for any of that stuff. You have to love it. You have to be willing to give your entire day, or your entire life, to it. And photography (art in general) is subjective, so once you’ve put in enough time to learn the craft and the technical aspects that come with it, at that point it’s your statement. It’s your art. That’s what’s so cool about it. It’s easy to emulate someone else’s shot, but to really make a name for yourself and call yourself a photographer, or a professional in any creative field, it takes way more effort and time.”

Now, a career in the creative fields can be tricky, because the means required to produce the work don’t come externally, they come internally. Your living comes from your art and, ultimately, your vision, which is internal. Your vision then comes from your experiences and how you process them, which creates this link between the images you capture and the person you are.

So my defining question is, after 23 years, what does your relationship with photography look like?

I would say nothing has changed in terms of what I believe you need to do in order to succeed as an artist. I still believe that you have to give it your all and commit your whole self to it. However, my personal relationship with photography as a whole has changed in that I don’t stress about my work nearly as often as I used to. I just let my inner-self shine through and let my inhibition be the guide.

I can remember for years and years this feeling of trepidation that came from the variables in photography. There would be so many ways I could shoot something, and in a lot of cases there was only so much time I had to shoot it, and that would drive me up the wall constantly. I’d stay up all night thinking about that stuff. I haven’t escaped that feeling fully, but now more than ever I can channel that flow-state where I’m allowing things to develop naturally.

Photography is almost like this innate thing for me now and, the more I do it, the more I’m able put myself on auto-pilot, which is great in regards to the stress related to my job, because I know if I can just put myself in position, I’ll make it happen. It hardly feels like work at this point. That gift of clarity stems from my longevity in photography, and I’m at the point now where I can actually see that and be conscious of it happening. I seek that mindset on all my shoots now.

To counter that serenity, there’s a doggedness to the craft that still remains. Once I’m chasing a shot in my head, that’s all that matters at that point. My job is something that I never get bored of because of that. I don’t ever put myself above anything or anyone when it comes to my job and my art, because it’s all a welcome challenge, one where every day is new and the elements are constantly changing. There are always ways to improve. Always things to learn. Always something more intriguing on the horizon. Photography is a never-ending journey in that way. You could come home from an unforgettable shoot and think you’ll never top a day like that again in your life, but you will. There will always be a better day.

Thanks to Garth for taking the time. Check him out personally at @garthmilan, and professionally at garthmilan.com & @octopi.media.

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